Hollywood has ruined us. No, not for the usual reasons - which are pretty obvious; but for something else - something more... normal. It has given us a false image of how lives are ruined, and how families die.
I watched a new movie last night; it was the same type of Hollywood story - the big brother with a dazzling ballplayer career pending, the little brother drunk and causing an accident. Big brother loses the use of his hand, little brother is not heard from for 20 years. The family dies - emotionally. This makes for 'edge of the seat' angst. But it doesn't much make for reality.
In Hollywood, 'family death' is always something big; something unforeseen; something so 'out of our control'.
But that's not how relationships die. They don't die by drastic tragedies at the speed of sound. They die by mundane words, or lack of them. They die by small actions, or lack of them. They die, in essence, by inches.
You know why drownings are so terrifying? Because they are so quiet. They are also so easy. The phone rings, the toddler is left in the bath for 'just a minute'. The gate is left open by mistake, the pond is next door and the screen has a tear in it... Easy. We could see it coming any second - and because of that - we don't see it coming.
No, we've grown to believe (and to reassure ourselves) that it is a huge catastrophe that ends things. That way, as long as we're not causing houses to blow up, knives to be thrown, lamps to be smashed - we're okay. People (and relationships) will stay alive, we will have yet another day... I mean, how could it be as quiet and simple as 'the gate left open'?
But that actually IS how relationships die. Yet another late night at the office; surely the wife/husband/child will understand. Or one more committee to chair, with resultant meetings - surely those dear to you will applaud your dedication to duty. Or that co-worker who is so witty; surely there's no harm to your marriage in just hanging out with him/her. Or your teenager who doesn't seem to really want to be around you; surely it's perfectly fine to let him/her spend hours on their own on the phone/at the mall/on the computer. Or your brother/sister/grown child who just plain irritates you; surely they'll 'get the joke' when you needle them at the family holiday. You 'tease' them, about their job, their kids, their faith, their politics, their beliefs and so on. Soon they come to the family dinners less and less. One day they just don't come at all.
Death by inches.
The list is endless; but it's there.
And it's so 'normal'.
And then one day you wake up and find that nobody loves anyone anymore. The little hurts have added up so high that they are like a mountain to get around. And who trusts anybody to really try to 'get around' them anyway? It's been years since it seemed like he/she cared - what's to start it now?
But the grace in all this is that the opposite is also true. Once again, if you look, you can see the Hand of God in this design. For families that grow healthy and strong don't need super human effort either. You needn't win the lottery, buy the brand new car, be a rock star. All you need do is be there. Listen, laugh, love - and forgive. There can even be a lot of mistakes mixed in - families don't care so much as long as there is honesty, humility, and love. Heck, admitting your own mistakes just might ensure that they feel even safer around you; since they won't worry so much about making some of their own...
Families, relationships, and love grow - by inches also. We needn't have a rocket ship to zoom to perfection. Inches are just fine.
The nicest thing, actually, about the reality of inches is that if you fall - you haven't fallen so far after all. And if you advance ahead - it's never so stupendous as to blind you with pride. And if you want to try to win it back - it's not overwhelming. It's inches - slow, steady growth. Small actions that gradually build lives, and relationships, back up. Nothing spectacular, nothing superhuman - just mundane. Just usual, just typical, just normal.
And that seems to be the best measurement of all.
Why do we justify people making the easy choices, instead of encouraging them to make the hard?
They sat across from me; faces filled with yearning, and hope. They were, they claimed, 'in love'. They had been 'in love' in high school, but the world took them on different paths and they lost touch. Each had met another, fallen in love, and married. Each had gone on to have several children. But they were each sure - now - that they had never forgotten their 'real, true' love.
And then, miraculously, their paths crossed once again. "It was like destiny!", they exclaimed as they shared a happy glance, "we knew that we had never stopped loving each other!" The only problem, it seemed, was that they - now - each had to tell their respective spouses - and all of their children - that the happy home and family they had based their lives upon - was coming to an end.
But really, really, they asked me, "don't we deserve to be happy"?
They had come to me, a divorce lawyer, for advice. How best to move forward, how best to tell their spouses, how best to move on to their happy new life?
I paused. The room grew silent. And still they waited.
I had seen this story before. In all my years as a divorce lawyer, I had almost never met someone needing a divorce due to a truly abusive spouse. It was always because they were "not happy", "not fulfilled", "in love with someone else", "changed and grown apart" - the list went on and on - yet the list only ever seemed to have them in the starring role - and their spouse as the 'bad guy'. Everyone else seemed to fade in the distance.
Their happiness, THEIR LIFE! Didn't they deserve it??!!
And once again, as this young couple sat and waited, I myself had a choice.
Do I justify the easy decision, or encourage the hard?
Since I am a Christian, and since I know that this life is NOT the main deal - I went with the hard...
I told them that I had heard a lot of talk about them; but not much talk about their children - or their respective spouses.
"Oh," they gushed, "we LOVE our children!"
"Then why," I asked them, "are you choosing to destroy their lives?"
That's not what they had planned to hear, I gathered.
I continued. I pointed out that every divorce I had witnessed ended up with shattered children. The studies and statistics are there. Children recover better from the death of a parent - then a divorce. A divorce sets them on a totally different trajectory through life. Before the divorce, they believe that everything is possible - you can get through it. After the divorce, they no longer hold that belief. Better to cut and run while the runnings good - was the new mantra. It was a mantra that set them up for relationship failure, and struggle, for years to come.
Knowing this, I used to try to talk to all of my clients. I would tell them that what they were essentially saying was that the difficulties in their marriage - the anger, the loneliness, the lack of love, the hurt - all of these things were too difficult for them to carry any longer. And so, instead of bearing that burden and trying to fix it, they were turning..... and handing it to their children. "Here," they were saying, "this is too tough for me - you take it."
But, I always warned them, children do not have the tools we have, to deal with the feelings that we struggle with. "You will no longer be unhappy," I would say, "but your child will. And that unhappiness will begin to show. Soon, you will be unhappy again - because your child's life will be imploding. And whereas it is in your own power now to fix your unhappiness - you will be powerless then - to fix theirs..."
I once heard a young adult claim that his parents divorced because they were so angry at each other, that they walked around the house all the time, slamming doors. "What I think" he said, "is that they could have learned to stop slamming doors easier ..... than I learned to be a child of divorce."
I would frequently hear from my prior clients a couple, or a few, years later. "Help!" they would exclaim, "my child is a mess! Our life is a living hell! What can I do??!!" And I would gently remind them of what I had said before.
Reality and truth, it seems, sucks. Especially when we choose to ignore it.
But now I sat with this couple before me - so hopeful, so excited, so 'in love again!'. I knew, however, that they were also Christians - and so I finished with a reminder. "God has given you one job. One. And that is the job He will hold you accountable for. It is the job of raising your children... I want you to first decide what you will say to Him when you stand before Him at the end of your life - and then I want you to decide if you think all these excuses are going to fly. THEN make your decision."
They, like so many before them, left. They were no longer friendly. They were no longer happy. Once again, it appeared, my words had fallen on deaf ears.
We moved away a few years after that. But a short time before we moved, Sarah, a woman in my church, approached me one day after Mass. I didn't know her well - aside from small talk - and so I was surprised when she pulled me aside to speak in private. Suddenly, she asked if I remembered the couple who had sat before me on that day long before. I said that I did. She looked at me then, and smiled.
"I just want you to know," she said, "that you saved 2 families that day."
The couple had apparently talked over what I said to them, and decided that they couldn't justify destroying their two families for their own happiness. Completely heartbroken, they decided to take the energy and excitement they had toward building a new life - and use it instead to rebuild the old. They realized that there was obviously something that had attracted them to their spouse enough to marry him or her in the first place. It was up to them - the ones who had 'lost' that attraction - to go back and find it. That was their responsibility - not their spouses.
In essence, they decided to set their 'Will', and then act upon it. Since it was their 'will', they could place it wherever they wanted - and feelings had nothing to do with that.
'Wills' are most easily seen in toddlers. Try to get them to do something that is against their will - and you are in for wholesale warfare! In fact, the entire point of 'growing up' is to learn how to set our 'will' toward the good of all, and not only our own selfish aims and desires. It is, actually, to stop acting like a toddler, and begin to act like an adult. Setting our 'will' involves using our reason to discern the good of each situation - and then taking the actions to secure it - regardless of what our vacillating feelings tell us at any one point in time.
Today, our culture has stopped reminding itself of this. We're told to go with our feelings and ignore our reason. We're told to do what 'feels good' - notwithstanding the fact that what 'feels good' changes every second.... As a result, it often seems as though we have become a nation of toddlers - since so few have learned the marks of adulthood; i.e. the ability to set our 'will'. It is the reason why we often seem to live such powerless, pitiful, and often pointless, lives.
This young couple, however, used their reason, and, realizing what they had to do, they each went their separate ways, notwithstanding how devastated emotionally they were with their decision. True to their 'wills' , they never saw each other again.
Yet, not surprisingly, over time they both grew to love their spouses once again, and soon they each wondered what in the world they had been thinking. They were so very grateful, Sarah told me, that I had kept them from making the worst decision of their lives...
She then told me that she was a dear and trusted friend of this couple - and the only one they had confided in back then. She alone knew, and knowing I was moving away, she wanted me to know also.
"Six children's lives were saved that day." she repeated, "Your words saved the lives of all those children, and the homes of two families. I just thought that you should know."
And so, I once again ask myself:
Why do we justify people making the easy choices, instead of encouraging them to make the hard...?
The hard choice is always the best, yet also the most difficult for us to recommend - since it usually results in us becoming unpopular, or unloved, or disliked, or ridiculed, or at times, even ostracized...
Then again, come to think of it - perhaps I've discovered the answer to my question after all.
Ashley and Susan
Two women asking the world to not just hope, but to hope in Love.